Archive for Science is Vital

Science is Vital at the Conway Hall

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , on October 27, 2015 by telescoper

Yesterday, as promised, I went up to London to attend the Science is Vital event at the Conway Hall.I was a bit worried that I might not make it in time for the 7 o’clock kick-off, but it turned out that a meeting I was attending finished earlier than expected and I got to the venue in good time.

It was a fun evening, but you don’t need to take my word for it. Here is a video of the whole thing, which is basically a recording of the live webstream.  I learned a lot, especially from Andrew Steele (who appears early on); check out his website here. Did you know for example that the average expenditure per person per year in the UK on alcohol is £600, while the average expenditure per person per year in the UK on cancer research is a paltry £2.80?

P.S. There’s a nice discussion of wider issues raised by the Science is Vital campaign in today’s Guardian.

Science is (still) Vital

Posted in Biographical, Politics, Science Politics with tags , on October 22, 2015 by telescoper

I’ve been on an interview panel all day and have only just emerged, blinking, into the daylight. I thought I’d take the opportunity to remind readers that there is a very important meeting/rally scheduled for Monday evening (26th October)  at the Conway Hall in London organised by Science is Vital to campaign against proposed cuts in UK science funding. I got my ticket some time ago, but I think there are a few places left. If you can’t make the meeting then you can still write a postcard to George Osborne. I have done a couple myself. Being in Brighton I was tempted to send one demonstrating the subtle humour characteristic of British seaside postcards, such as this one

postcardbut I decided not to.

 

Anyway, it’s almost five years since I last participated in a rally in London to protest against proposed cuts to the UK science budget. Since then research funding has been heavily squeezed by a “flat cash” settlement that threatens the survival our science base, with consequent damaging effects on the long-term future of the economy. This graphic, from a post by Stephen Curry, says it all:

science is still vital

Back in 2010, most of us were relieved that the outcome of the Chancellor’s spending review was a level funding in cash terms, although the decline in real terms funding since then has been enormously challenging across the board. The forthcoming spending review puts us in an even more dangerous situation. After the 2010 election the Coalition government announced a “ring fence” that protected science spending from cash cuts for the duration of the last Parliament (although this has, as the graphic above demonstrates) translated into real-terms cuts year on year. This time any commitment to a ring-fence from the Conservative government has been conspicuous by its absence. Indeed, its decision to claw back funding of STEM subjects through HEFCE has demonstrated its intention to remove even this modest protection. The government has signalled its desire to cut overall spending massively this time, and there are few places left for the axe to fall other than in research. Now the UK’s research councils are being told to budget for cuts of 20% and 40% to their core funding. This will lead to the abandonment of many international research projects and lead to large-scale redundancies across the sector, driving the best of our scientists abroad. These plans are bad not only for science, but for the economy as a whole because it is only through growth triggered by research and innovation that this country can hope to recover from the mess that it is currently in.

 

Science is (even more) Vital (than ever)

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , on September 17, 2015 by telescoper

It’s almost five years since I participated in a rally in London to protest against proposed cuts to the UK science budget. Since then research funding has been heavily squeezed by a “flat cash” settlement that threatens the survival our science base, with consequent damaging effects on the long-term future of the economy. This graphic, from a post by Stephen Curry, says it all:

science is still vital

Back in 2010, most of us were relieved that the outcome of the Chancellor’s spending review was a level funding in cash terms, although the decline in real terms funding since then has been enormously challenging across the board. The forthcoming spending review puts us in an even more dangerous situation. After the 2010 election the Coalition government announced a “ring fence” that protected science spending from cash cuts for the duration of the last Parliament (although this has, as the graphic above demonstrates) translated into real-terms cuts year on year. This time any commitment to a ring-fence from the Conservative government has been conspicuous by its absence. Indeed, its decision to claw back funding of STEM subjects through HEFCE has demonstrated its intention to remove even this modest protection. The government has signalled its desire to cut overall spending massively this time, and there are few places left for the axe to fall other than in research. Now the UK’s research councils are being told to budget for cuts of 20% and 40% to their core funding. This will lead to the abandonment of many international research projects and lead to large-scale redundancies across the sector, driving the best of our scientists abroad. These plans are bad not only for science, but for the economy as a whole because it is only through growth triggered by research and innovation that this country can hope to recover from the mess that it is currently in.

As scientists and as people who care about this country’s future we can not allow these cuts to go ahead. I will be attending an event at the Conway Hall in London organised by Science is Vital to campaign against these reckless plans. I encourage you to do likewise. I don’t know if the government will listen, but we have to try.

Tell Them Science Is Vital

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags on March 15, 2015 by telescoper

To follow up on my previous post, here’s a a lot more about the Tell Them Science Is Vital initiative…

Purely a figment of your imagination

There’s another election coming up and, whatever the outcome, we’ll all (hopefully) still be doing our jobs and waiting for the situation to improve.

Something the government could do to lay foundations for education, industries and economic growth in the UK is to fund science. Over the last 2 decades, they’ve really let this slide. Enter #TellThemSiV, the new campaign from Science is Vital, to do just that…

Tell Them Science is Vital

In just a few weeks, Britain goes to the polls to vote in a new government. This is obviously a crucial time for science funding and policy.

That is why Science Is Vital needs you to contact your MP or parliamentary candidate.

Since 2010, the science budget, despite having been protected from the worst of the austerity measures by the ring-fence we fought for, will nevertheless have shrunk in real terms by up to 20%.

In…

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Science Is Vital, So Don’t Let It Be Strangled.

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , on March 15, 2015 by telescoper

The General Election looming on the horizon could prove to be a watershed for scientific research in the United Kingdom. In the period immediately following the 2010 Election there was a great deal of nervousness about the possibility of huge cuts to spending on research. One of the most effective campaigns to persuade the new government against slashing funding for science on the grounds that scientific research was likely to be the principal fuel for any economic recovery was led by Science is Vital. I have written a few posts about this organisation.

The scientific community breathed a collective sigh of relief in autumn 2010 when the UK Government announced that research funding would be “ring-fenced” and maintained in cash terms for the duration of the Parliament. Things could have been far worse, as they have been in other parts of the public sector, but over the years the effect of inflation has been that this “flat cash” settlement involves a slow strangulation as opposed to a quick fall of the axe.

A recent piece in the Guardian includes this picture, which speaks for itself:

Science_spendingThe United Kingdom now spends less than 0.5% of its GDP on research, and this fraction is falling rapidly. We are now ranked last in the G8 by this criterion, way behind the USA and Germany. Why are we in this country so unbelievably miserly abou funding research? Other countries seem to recognize its important, so why can’t our politicians see it? We should be increasing our investment in science, not letting it wither away like this.

It seems to me that much more of this squeeze and we’ll be needing to close down major facilities and start withdrawing from important international collaborations. The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) is particularly vulnerable, as such a large fraction of its budget is committed to long-term projects. It’s already trimmed funding for other activities to the bone, with research grants under particularly intense pressure. Will the ongoing Nurse Review of the Research Councils spell doom for STFC, as many of my colleagues think? Will be research funding  be transferred rom universities into research institutes?

Anyway, it seems an appropriate time to advertise the latest campaign from Science is Vital, which involves writing to candidates (including incumbent MPs) in your constituency to Tell Them That Science Is Vital. You might consider including some of the following, or others suggested by the website. If you’re a scientist, describe why your research is important. Here are some suggestions. If there is a local research institute in your constituency, explain how important it is to your local economy (how many people it employs, for example). If you’re a patient, or someone who cares for a patient, say how important you think research into that disease. Ask your candidate or MP to endorse the Science is Vital campaign to increase public funding of science to 0.8% of GDP. And if you do write, remember that the economic argument for investing research isn’t the only one…

End of Term Report: David Willetts

Posted in Education, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , on July 15, 2014 by telescoper

News broke yesterday that the Minister responsible for Universities and Science within the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, David Willetts, had stepped down from his role and would be leaving Parliament at the next election.

Willetts’ departure isn’t particularly surprising in itself, but its announcement came along with a host of other sackings and resignations in a pre-Election cabinet reshuffle that was much wider in its scope than most expected. It seems to me that Prime Minster David Cameron has decided to play to the gallery again. After almost four years in which his Cabinet has been dominated by white males, most of them nondescript timeserving political hacks without beards, he has culled some of them at random to try to pretend that he does after all care about equality and diversity. Actually, I don’t think David Cameron cares for very much at all apart from his own political future and this is just a cynical attempt to win back some votes before the next Polling Day, presumably in May 2015. Rumour has it that one of the new Cabinet ministers may even have facial hair. Such progress.

Willets

David Willetts was planning to step down at the next General Election anyway so his departure now was pretty much inevitable. I never agreed with his politics, but have to admit that he was a Minister who at least understood some things about Higher Education. In particular he knew the value of science and secured a flat cash settlement for the science budget at a time when other Whitehall budgets were suffering drastic cuts. He was by no means all bad. He even had the good taste – so I’m told – to read this blog from time to time….

The campaigning organization Science is Vital has expressed its sadness at his departure:

We’re sorry to see David Willetts moved from the Science Minister role. He listened, in person, to our arguments for increasing public funding for science, and we appreciated the support he showed for science within the government.

We look forward to renewed dialogue with his successor, in order to continue to press the case that science is vital for the UK.

Now that he has gone, my main worry is that the commitments he gave to ring-fence the science budget will go with him. I don’t know anything about his replacement, Greg Clark, though I hope he follows his predecessor at least in this regard.

Other aspects of Willetts’ tenure of the Higher Education office are much less positive. He has provided over an ideologically-driven rush to force the University sector into an era of chaos and instability, driven by a rigged quasi-market propelled by an unsustainable system of tuition fees funded by student loans, a large fraction of which will never be repaid.

Another of Willetts’ notable failures relates to Open Access. Although apparently grasping the argument and make all the right noises about breaking the stranglehold exerted on academia by outmoded forms of publication, he sadly allowed the agenda to be hijacked by vested interests in the academic publishing lobby. Fortunately, there’s still a very strong chance that academics can take this particular issue into their own hands instead of relying on the politicians who time and time again prove themselves to be in the pockets of big business.

My biggest fear for Higher Education at the moment is that the new Minister will turn out to be far worse and that if the Conservatives win the next election (which is far from unlikely), Science is Vital will have to return to Whitehall to protest against the inevitable cuts. If that happens, it may well be that David Willetts is remembered not as the man who saved British science, but the man who gave it a stay of execution.

The Great Escape? Not yet.

Posted in Finance, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , , on October 20, 2010 by telescoper

I expected to wake up this morning with the blues all round my bed, about the results of the Comprehensive Spending Review about to be announced today, but news appearing in the Guardian and the BBC websites last night suggested that the UK Science budget may, repeat may, be spared the worst of the cuts.

This news has been greeted with euphoria in the science community, as we were expecting much worse than the settlement suggested by the news. The RCUK budget, it seems, will be fixed in cash terms around £3.5 billion per annum for four years, as will the approximately £1bn distributed for research through HEFCE’s QR mechanism. This translates into a real terms cut that depends on what figure you pick for inflation over this period. The Treasury suggests it will corresponding to a 10% reduction figured that way, but inflation has defied predictions and remained higher than expected over the past three years so things could be different. Also important to note is that this budget (amounting to around £4.6 billion) is to be ring-fenced within RCUK.

So why the apparent change of heart? Well, I don’t know for sure, but I think the Science is Vital campaign played a very big part in this. Huge congratulations are due to Jenny Rohn and the rest of the team for doing such a fantastic job. The Guardian makes this clear, stating that science is usually a non-issue for the Treasury, but this time it was

high on the political radar because strong representations have been made by the scientific community about what they have described as “long term and irreversible” damage to the UK economy if there are deep cuts to research funding.

That means everyone who wrote to their MP or lobbied or went on the demo really did make a difference. Give yourselves a collective pat on the back!

BUT (and it’s a very big BUT) we’re by no means out of the woods yet, at least not those of us who work in astronomy and particle physics. As the BBC article makes clear, the level cash settlement for RCUK comes with an instruction that “wealth creation” be prioritised. The budget for RCUK covers all the research councils, who will now have to make their pitch to RCUK for a share of the pie. It’s unlikely that it will be flat cash for everyone. There will be winners and losers, and there’s no prize for guessing who the likely losers are.

The performance of the STFC Executive during the last CSR should also be born in mind. STFC did very poorly then at a time when the overall funding allocation for science was relatively generous, and precipitated a financial crisis that STFC’s management still hasn’t properly come to grips with. The track-record doesn’t inspire me with confidence. Moreover, at a town meeting in London in December 2007 at which the Chief Executive of STFC presented a so-called delivery plan to deal with the crisis he led his organisation into, he confidently predicted a similarly poor settlement in the next CSR. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy. Let’s hope they get their act together better this time.

Taking all this together it remains by no means improbable that the STFC budget could be squeezed until the pips squeak in order to liberate funds to spend elsewhere within RCUK on things that look more likely to generate profits quickly. The nightmare scenario I mentioned a few days ago is still on the cards.

As we all know, STFC’s budget is dominated by large fixed items so its science programme is especially vulnerable. As the BBC puts it

So any cut in [STFC’s] budget will be greatly magnified and it is expected that it will have to withdraw from a major programme. Alternatively, it would have to cutback or close one of its research institutes.

We could have to wait until December to find out the STFC budget, so the anxiety is by no means over. However, the ring-fencing of RCUK’s budget within BIS may bring that forward a bit as it would appear to suggest one level of negotations could be skipped. We might learn our fate sooner than we thought.

Overall, this is a good result in the circumstances. Although it’s a sad state of affairs when a >10% real terms cut is presented as a success, it’s far less bad than many of us had expected. But I think STFC science remains in grave danger. It’s not an escape, just a stay of execution.

But there is one important lesson to be learned from this. When the STFC crisis broke three years ago, reaction amongst scientists was muted. Fearful of rocking the boat, we sat on our hands as the crisis worsened. I hope that the success of the Science is Vital campaign has convinced you that keeping quiet and not making a fuss is exactly the wrong thing to do.

If only we’d been braver three years ago.


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